The global media coverage of the death of Pope John Paul ii evoked for some commentators the prophecy, attributed to Malraux, that ‘the 21st century will be religious or it will not be’. Yet which of the thirty centuries that have left a written record has not been religious? The enlightened 18th, perhaps; but only superficially. Like many atheists, Malraux himself was profoundly religious. He knew that science cannot create bonds between people; that the relationships between human consciousnesses are imaginary—or they are not. The resurgence of sacramental passions in the late 20th century should surprise only those who espoused the naive 19th century credo, that the progress of science and technology would drive away superstition and beliefs; that religion was a mere left-over, an irrational residue which the future would erase.

Neither juridical norms nor economic interests suffice to create a consistent collectivity, a sense of belonging or of a shared destiny. A unifying principle is required, whether divine or human, supernatural or mythological; one that is necessarily superior to the contingent plane on which we live. ‘What would become of us’, Paul Valéry asked, ‘without the succour of that which does not exist?’ This is what is meant by communion, as a neutral term, neither good nor bad; a statement of fact. The revealed religions have provided only a late version of this, a marginal one in historical terms. The unique and personal God only goes back 2,500 years. The earliest known burial ground, as a first indication of belief in the invisible, is from 300,000 years ago. It is the sacred—whether secular or confessional, historical or supernatural—that is universal; not scripture, dogma, the clergy, revelation.

The search for communion is what lies behind the current surge of religiosity: the joy of coming together, the happiness of melting, shoulder to shoulder, into a consciously structured crowd. The ceremonial deficits of our postmodern society create a void that needs to be filled. The philosophers of the last fifty years—individualists and libertarians, anti-totalitarians and liberals—have tended to describe this euphoria as an unpleasant froth. They speak of rights, gender, language, freedom, values, but never of fraternity. Communism is a dirty word, not to speak of the Fatherland or the Party. Civic rites are on the wane. Sport and the Pope are all that is left, along with pop concerts, as mini-substitutes for the young, or sects, for lost souls. The funeral of the Pope—simply as spectacle, without any personal commitment to the ceremony—gave every viewer the opportunity to slake that nostalgia for community, on a global scale. What else could compete?

A missionary religion will inevitably deploy the media at its disposal. Roman Catholicism has been ultramodern in this sense since the 2nd century: the scroll, the painted image, the bound book, the digest, the stained-glass window. It is the only monotheism to have authorized the use of images—‘The Bible of idiots’, in Gregory vii’s phrase, speaking of stained glass rather than tv. The idea was to use men’s weakness, their gaze, the better to save them. During the age of print, the graphosphere pushed to the fore Protestant reforms, founded just on scripture. ‘After the Pope, paper’, said Victor Hugo. But after paper, in the age of the screen: the Pope. The advent of the videosphere worked miracles for a sensuous religion, rich in rituals. But the icon bears a dangerously close resemblance to the idol. Instead of venerating the invisible via its visible image, it is the image itself that is adored. The idol becomes a totem; the doctrine, a screenplay. John Paul ii was a consummate actor-pope, highly gifted at staging a scene. In sanctifying, live on screen, its greatest champion, the videosphere sacralized itself.

The Pope himself was also a screen, a mirror for projections of desire. But behind it the cracks have built up: fewer synods and episcopal conferences, theological research on a tight rein, ecumenicism in crisis. Conduct and doctrine are not always aligned; they can have a schizoid relationship. Whether in Church or State, the hypervisibility of the Chief always has an authoritarian function in that it short-circuits the intermediary bodies. The regency of tv enhances this tendency. Truth is no longer to be found in the scriptures or the institution, but in the person of the Chief.

But the religions that are conquering the world today, Islam and neo-Protestantism, are without a church, leader, pomp or ceremony; often lacking all visual ostentation. They offer a daily code of conduct rather than a theological tradition, a closeness and accessibility that make them warmer and more personal than Catholicism. The spectacle only governs the society of the spectacle; life and meaning are beyond it. The globe minus China, India, the Islamic countries and the Orthodox bloc is only a partial universe. Poland and Italy are not the navel of the planet. If, for a day or two, they can become the centre of a global network of images, it is because only the West can get itself taken for the whole world in that way—the miracle of hegemony.